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Four Final X-Factors That Will Determine Whose National Title Hopes Survive Saturday

While each team playing on Saturday earned a trip to the College Football Playoff, Alabama and Clemson remain overwhelming favorites. SI outlines keys that will determine the survival of all four teams.

The four teams in the 2018 College Football Playoff earned their way to the semifinals, but many neutral observers, along with those in Vegas, don’t expect Saturday’s Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl to be all that competitive. Alabama and Clemson ran through their schedules with no losses and only a few hiccups, and every SI expert predicted that they will meet in the title game. Underdogs Oklahoma and Notre Dame have the talent to expose their biggest weaknesses and prevent a third national title rematch in four years, but the Sooners and Irish have little margin for error if they plan on making it to Santa Clara.

As kickoff approaches in Miami Gardens and Arlington, we took a closer look at one final key that will determine whose quest for a national championship will continue beyond this weekend.


Oklahoma: Offensive line play

While the Sooners’ much-maligned defense will get most of the attention as it tries to slow down Alabama’s brutally efficient offense, it’s the offensive line that will decide whether Oklahoma can spring the upset. Tackles Bobby Evans and Cody Ford, guards Ben Powers and Dru Samia and center Creed Humphrey earned the Joe Moore Award, given to the nation’s top offensive line unit, helping to pave the way for the highest-scoring offense in the FBS. The Sooners ran an average of 66 plays per game this season; beating Alabama will require sustained drives that will likely add up to an 80–90 play total. Five times this season, the Sooners have put up at least 300 rushing yards and 300 passing yards in a game, but Kyler Murray needs time to find his talented receivers in the face of the Crimson Tide pass rush, and Kennedy Brooks will need holes to keep Oklahoma balanced.

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Alabama: Switching up defensive alignments

The Crimson Tide lost the entire starting secondary from last year’s national title squad, but that didn’t stop them from again dominating the SEC and everyone else in 2018. But they can be taken advantage of, especially if they play man coverage on OU’s outstanding running backs Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks, who can catch the ball out of the backfield. Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray destroyed three-man fronts all year, as defenses tried to contain the Sooners with up to seven defensive backs, while playing quarters and sometimes dime coverage. Alabama would be wise to employ a 4–3 scheme or send five rushers for the majority of the game to give him different looks, because Murray’s aforementioned offensive line is giving him nearly three seconds to sit back and survey the field.

Clemson: “Blitz all night”

Any time an opposing quarterback went back to pass against Clemson this season, the Tigers got pressure nearly 46% of the time. That is a highly efficient rate at rushing the passer, and Clemson will be dangerous even without star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who will miss the game due to a failed a drug test. That pressure resulted in the defense living in backfield, collecting 46 sacks and 121 tackles for loss. The key for Clemson is to force Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book outside of the pocket, where his passer rating drops nearly 40 points from the mark he maintains with a clean pocket to throw. Notre Dame must try to run the ball to neutralize the pass rush, but that’s easier said than done. Clemson allowed 2.4 yards per rush and gave up only eight scores on the ground all year.

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Notre Dame: When opportunity knocks, take advantage

When games are decided by a few points because of a missed critical play, the result can often be linked to how well a team does when it reaches the red zone. Notre Dame got there 51 times in 2018 and scored a touchdown 62% of the time. That kind of efficiency simply will not get it done against Clemson. Because points will be at a premium, converting scoring opportunities once you cross into opposing territory can’t be wasted. The Irish must keep the score close and turn the game ugly by using their ground game to complement the pass, not the other way around. Simply put, it means Notre Dame can't afford to make mistakes: no dropped interceptions, missed fumble recovery opportunities or silly drive extending penalties.